Do psychopathic dictators spawn monsters? Jay Nordlinger’s answer is a qualified yes. And it’s the qualifiers that make Children of Monsters: An Inquiry Into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators such a riveting and informative read. In the easy, elegant style that is to be expected from a senior editor of National Review, Nordlinger coaxes his reader into a universe of evil all the more astonishing for its ubiquity: the twenty men whose offspring he selects for scrutiny span the globe. China, Japan, Russia, North Korea, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Cuba, Haiti, five African countries (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Libya, Uganda, and Ethiopia) are all represented. So, indeed, is Europe: Italy, Germany, Spain, Albania, and finally my own hapless Romania, whose reputation for leaders addicted to blood—already solidly secured by Count Dracula—the Ceaușescus managed to cement.
Most of the children discussed by Nordlinger are still alive. Some have come to know one another. Many—too many—had the opportunity to live up to their heritage by becoming real, not merely potential, monsters themselves—as did the baby-faced dictator of North Korea, whose own father was equally monstrous.
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Too few have had the courage to face their fathers’ actions. Most have either denied reality, dismissing it as politically-motivated disinformation, or chose to hide from the world and from themselves. Unsurprisingly, virtually all displayed paradoxical, inconsistent, even schizophrenic behavior.
Nordlinger describes his book as "a psychological study"—and it is that. He does the best he can to try to understand, insofar as it is possible, these ill-fated creatures. Dispensing with jargon and false modesty, Nordlinger says he has scoured and read everything relevant to the topic, including almost literally "garbage"—a source, it bears noting, that any intelligence operative would consider routine.
He talked to everyone he could possibly reach who could throw light on his subjects, and even managed to meet some of the subjects themselves. Some wrote memoirs, more or less candid. Similarities among their fates are striking, if unsurprising. Both Mussolini and Hussein had the husband of their favorite daughter killed; Duvalier’s daughter was spared a similar fate just barely.
Nordlinger draws up a few categories for his subjects. First are the sons who might have outdone their fathers: Vassily Stalin, Nicu Ceaușescu, several of the Qaddafi boys, two of the Assad boys, Saddam’s sons, and (maybe) Kongulu Mobutu. Then there are the girls who would have earned monster status by succeeding their father had they been boys. There are the political and personal aides who helped their fathers—the assistant monsters, so to speak. And then there are extended family members, whose sordid tales make for creepy and sad reading.
But the book is far more than a tabloid glimpse into the family lives of rivals to the title of World’s Worst Head of State. Indeed, Nordlinger uses the popular fascination with celebrity to convey the important, if never explicitly stated, moral message that hubris is the path to immorality. Likewise, cravings for money, publicity, and adulation propel men of consummate depravity to steal power through treachery and murder.
Such a moral is not to be found in the book in so many words. But it’s there—as are other moral judgments, absent which the book might offer merely juicy tidbits. Instead, it educates with clarity and directness. Nordlinger’s effortless, matter-of-fact descriptions of preposterous events often turn outright hilarious, just because they are, well, preposterous. This approach is brilliant. For not only does it result in an eminently readable, even—dare one say it?—enjoyable book, in a gallows’-jokey way. More importantly, Nordlinger subtly yet powerfully damns his subjects with the power of irony and condescension that has defined the life-saving, inimitable tradition of Jewish humor. Resorting to satire turned out far better than if he had tried to approach the task with deadpan earnestness.
The chapter on Cambodia’s psychopathic Khmer Rouge begins with almost clinical matter-of-factness: "Their rule was one of the most savage episodes in human history. They killed about 2 million people, or between a fifth and a quarter of the population." As it happens, Cambodia was the same nation that anti-Vietnam protesters said wouldn’t be one of the "dominos" to fall after the American defeat in that part of the world.
The story continues:
In the mid-1980s, Pol Pot was about 60, and Khmer Rouge officials decided that he needed a wife. As the journalist Nate Thayer writes, ‘they handpicked a small group of young women, chosen for their revolutionary commitment and the purity of their class background.’ Pol Pot could choose from this lineup. He chose Mea Son, who had been an ammunition porter.
A daughter was born. When Thayer had a chance to interview Pol Pot in 1997 (he was then living comfortably in Phnom Pen) and asked whether he thought his daughter, then 12, would grow up to be proud of him, the old dictator merely said he didn’t know.
Pol Pot had nothing to fear. The girl’s school didn’t teach the Khmer Rouge as a subject. It seems she knows little or nothing about her father’s crimes. She kept in touch with children of other Khmer Rouge leaders, and she admires Beyoncé. ("One of Mutassim Qaddafi’s guests or hirees," Nordlinger reminds his readers, because celebrity is celebrity and money is money.)
Cambodia’s failure to come to terms with its own recent past is the rule rather than the exception. Most of the countries mentioned in the book have opted to whitewash rather than condemn the crimes of the monsters who led them. No less reprehensible is the barely-noticeable but unmistakably-present theme of Western complicity in dictators’ crimes—and not just by clueless basketball players and pop stars, but by governments, as with America’s involvement in the case of Congo’s Mobutu.
Even such a Dantean journey as Nordlinger’s book reveals rays of light—two, to be exact, and both are women. They are Svetlana Alliluyeva and Alina Fernandez, the daughters of Stalin and Castro, who "both defected not just literally—physically—but mentally and spiritually." Svetlana’s odyssey is fascinating not only for its improbable plot but for the power of her insights: "Many people today find it easier to think of [Stalin] as a coarse physical monster. Actually, he was a moral and spiritual monster. This is far more terrifying. But it’s the truth." Tell that to the one-quarter of Russians who reportedly believe that Stalin had been "a great leader."
Alina was no less outspoken. In a 2002 interview, she said "Fidel has ruined Cuba. He has slaughtered its people and bankrupted the country. And for what? I don’t think even he knows." But Cuba is unlikely to change soon. Nordlinger cites Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who predicts that either Raul Castro’s son Alejandro or Fidel’s son Antonio, "will rise to the top. The former is already close to the top, a heavy in state security." And the U.S. just "normalized" relations.
The human family has a lot of explaining to do. This book offers a fascinating account of some very black sheep whose sins too many have facilitated, forgotten, or ignored.